The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
You may have heard about Harvard's new policy, under which people who join single-gender associations (like fraternities or Harvard's secretive "finals clubs", none of which are formally recognized by Harvard) won't be allowed to be athletic team captains or leaders of student groups and won't be able to get recommendations for certain scholarships. (Here's a Harvard Crimson article about it, here's a post about it from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, here's a Reason article about it, and here's a Morning Mix post questioning whether the ban should apply to all-women groups.)
Of course Harvard is a private organization, so they can do whatever they want, and as a legal matter, I agree that they should be able to do whatever they want. (This rule seems to apply only to future students, but even if it applied to current students, it's not clear that there would necessarily be anything legally fishy.)
But for those who take an interest in what Harvard does as part of the enterprise of a liberal university, there's a lot that's troubling about the idea of penalizing people for their off-campus memberships by denying them a privilege (student organization leadership) that's available to everyone else, without any individualized showing that membership in the particular organization is somehow inconsistent with leadership in the club. Fortunately, if you're a Harvard alumnus, you can do something about it: vote for a slate of candidates for Harvard's Board of Overseers. The slate consists of Ralph Nader, Ron Unz, Stuart Taylor, Lee Cheng, and Stephen Hsu. Here's a Harvard Crimson article about their candidacy, here's a New York Times article, and here's a debate about their platform.
Actually, their platform really only has two planks: (1) free tuition, and (2) transparency about admissions to counter claims that there's an anti-Asian quota. I voted for their slate, though I'm agnostic about whether free tuition is a good idea. Nonetheless, three of the members of the slate—Unz, Taylor, and Cheng—have released the following statement about Harvard's attack on freedom of association, so if you agree with them on that issue, that's another reason to vote for at least those three. I'm reproducing their statement below, but their last paragraph is very important, so I'll say it right here:
Ballots received by Harvard by noon on May 20, 2016 from Harvard degree holders who wish to vote for (or against) us will be counted. Until May 11, Harvard degree holders who have discarded or have not received the blank ballots that were to be mailed in early April can obtain replacement ballots by calling the Election Services Co. help desk at 1-866-720-4357 or emailing email@example.com, including your name, mailing address, degree, and graduation year.
Here's the full statement:
We are appalled and dismayed by the Harvard University administration's attack on the freedom of association of members of all-male and all-female off-campus clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Harvard has announced plans to impose grave punishments on all students who join such clubs, beginning with the Class entering in 2017. The punishments that have been announced include prohibiting any members of single sex clubs from holding office in any Harvard student organization, and from receiving a recommendation from Harvard for post-graduate honors like Marshall and Rhodes scholarships. The Harvard administration has way, way overreached, and is teaching a lesson not about honoring and respecting difference of perspective and preferences, but on how power can be abused to enforce monolithic ways of thinking and living.
The administration bases its actions on claims that single-sex clubs have aggravated the campus sexual assault problem, and that the historically male clubs foster, in President' Drew Faust's words "forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values," and in the words of the Harvard Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault, "deeply misogynistic attitudes." These are serious charges, but due to their lack of any reasonable or substantial support, they are no more than political statements that Harvard's administration hates all-male clubs for being all-male.
We agree with the following statement by Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the nation's foremost campus civil liberties group: "Outrageously, Harvard has decided that 2016 is the right time to revive the blacklist. This year's undesirables are members of off-campus clubs that don't match Harvard's political preferences. In the 1950s, perhaps Communists would have been excluded. I had hoped that universities were past the point of asking people, 'Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a group we don't like?' Sadly, they are not."
The off-campus men's and women's finals clubs, fraternities, and sororities long ago ended their formal ties with Harvard so that they could run their own affairs and decide for themselves whether single-sex clubs serve purposes worth protecting. The claims by President Faust and Dean Rakesh Kurana that these clubs have proved unworthy of such basic freedoms are based in large part on an argument by the sexual assault task force that statistical evidence suggests the clubs are incubators of sexual assault—despite the fact that the vast majority of alleged sexual assaults occur in dormitories run by the Harvard administration itself.
Even if the task force's claim were true, that could not justify the drastic remedy of destroying students' freedom of association. But the claim is simply not true. In fact, the task force's statistical argument is so clearly manufactured that any Harvard first year should be able to see it for what it is: a pretext for a politically predetermined, and politically correct, assault on free association by an administration committed to ever-expanding bureaucratic control over the private lives, and even the private thoughts, of Harvard students. It is not hard to see a day when Harvard may determine that membership in particular religious groups, or affiliations with certain disfavored political parties, may also be determined to be "at odds with" the "deepest values" held by the President and Dean of Students of Harvard at the time.
The fallacy of Harvard's statistical claims is detailed in a convincing analysis by Jora B. Stixrud, an economist hired as a consultant by one of the clubs. She concluded that the "Task Force's decision to single out the Final Clubs is statistically indefensible." Stixrud added: "As an example of how meaningless the figure [relied on by the Task Force] is in any consideration of the topic of sexual contact and the male Final Clubs, a woman who received an unwanted kiss in her dorm room while a freshman would be counted as part of this figure if she later joined an all-female Final Club in her sophomore year."
Moreover, the impairment of students' rights of free association is not even remotely the most appropriate or effective remedy for what President Faust has called the "alarming frequency" of sexual assaults by Harvard students. Accountability should begin right at the top. The leaders of Harvard should be held fully accountable for failing to increase police presence on campus or take the other serious steps to protect students that would be called for if President Faust took seriously her own suggestion that sexual assaults are epidemic at Harvard.
The five Free Harvard/Fair Harvard candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers-Unz, Cheng, Stephen Hsu, Ralph Nader and Taylor—petitioned to be on the ballot in order to increase access to Harvard and transparency in admissions. Three of us have now decided to take a stand against the Harvard administration's assaults on students' freedom of association. Stephen Hsu and Ralph Nader were not prepared to join us without more time to consider the issues.
Ballots received by Harvard by noon on May 20, 2016 from Harvard degree holders who wish to vote for (or against) us will be counted. Until May 11, Harvard degree holders who have discarded or have not received the blank ballots that were to be mailed in early April can obtain replacement ballots by calling the Election Services Co. help desk at 1-866-720-4357 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name, mailing address, degree, and graduation year [EDIT: I'm told that only calling them works].